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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: A Small Step For Justice On A Long Road Ahead

A protester in Ottawa, Canada, in June 2020 holds a sign after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police.
A protester in Ottawa, Canada, in June 2020 holds a sign after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police.

It sounds like such a simple question: What is the police’s job?

The reflex answer, I think, is four words: to keep us safe. But those small words cast long shadows. A lot of us don’t agree on what “safe” means, and we definitely don’t agree on what “us” means. Even now, after George Floyd’s killer was brought to justice.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is likely to spend the next decade or so of his life in prison. A jury found Chauvin guilty of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he died after police responded to a call that Floyd was trying to pass a fake $20 bill.

The day before the Chauvin verdict, a federal appellate judge upheld the 20-year sentence given to Michael Slager, the former North Charleston police officer who shot Walter Scott in the back in 2015, and killed him, when Scott ran after being pulled over for a busted brake light.

So, score two for accountability. But it will take a long time to catch up to the number of Black people who have died at the hands of police, often for unaccountable reasons.

Before the week was even out there was a new case out in Elizabeth City, where a sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a Black man named Andrew Brown as deputies tried to serve a search warrant.

The details aren’t clear on that case yet. But it’s no surprise that Black Americans, by and large, don’t give police the benefit of the doubt.

In the interest of fairness, officers treat Black suspects differently in pretty much the same way America as a whole treats Black people differently, in everything from school suspensions to prison sentences to buying a house to shopping at the mall.

These biases, whether they’re conscious or not, infect so many of our daily interactions. The difference is, when police are involved there’s always a heightened sense of threat and at least one person on the scene with a gun.

Derek Chauvin didn’t use his gun. But he put his knee on George Floyd’s neck with the belief that he had the full weight of the justice system behind him.

It turns out that he was wrong.

Based on the facts, it seemed like the obvious decision to find Chauvin guilty. But the history of this country teaches us that the lens of race filters almost everything we see.

That’s why it was such a surprise — and a relief — to see a jury of our peers find a moment of simple clarity.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.